What comes after neoliberalism? And is it worse? ‹ Literary Center
Tourists make historical pilgrimage Mitteleuropa observe the past. But I have spent the last few days in the Hungarian city of Budapest looking to the future. Hungary may not be Silicon Valley. It is certainly not the pioneering cryptocurrency or any of the other disruptive technologies of the current Web3 revolution. And yet the future has already arrived on the banks of the Danube. It is here, in the heart of old central Europe, that we can begin to see the hazy outlines of a radically disruptive new politics that I fear could shape the first half of the 21st century.
I am not alone in my pilgrimage. This small Central European country, with its newly re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his triumphant Fidesz party, became the darling of contemporary conservatives, attracting the flattering attention of Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson. Seventy years ago, the Central European economist Friedrich Hayek reinvented 20th century conservatism with his fetishization of the free market, a theory we now call neoliberalism. Today, Orban’s Fidesz replaces neoliberalism with a new type of conservatism that replaces the cult of the free market with the cult of political power.
Last week on Want to I spoke with Cambridge historian Gary Gerstle about the rise of fall neoliberalism. He claims that we have been living in what he calls a “neoliberal order” for half a century. According to him, neoliberalism has conquered the intellectual world, seducing not only conservatives like Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but also liberals like Ralph Nader, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. But, Gerstle reminds us, progressive neoliberals have always lagged behind conservatives. First it was Reagan and Thatcher, then their imitators, Clinton and Blair. Always in this order.
It’s ironic, of course. Conservatives are supposed to keep rather than innovate. But, according to British writer Edmund Fawcett, author of two acclaimed intellectual histories of liberalism and conservatism, modern conservatism has always been more intellectually energetic, more avant-garde, above all more innovative than liberalism.
The truth is more sinister than this cartoonish review. Orban is perfecting a quasi-legal Machiavellian model of political power accumulation.
“If politics were a game of chess, liberals would be white; they moved first,” Fawcett wrote in Conservatism: the fight for a tradition. “The Conservatives had black; they countered the opening movements of liberalism. Over time, the initiative changed hands. Conservatives, who started out as anti-moderns, managed to master modernity because the right was, tellingly, the strongest competitor.
Edmund Fawcett’s argument that modern conservatism dominates this great intellectual chess game is certainly true in the case of neoliberalism. First Reagan and Thatcher, then their imitators Clinton and Blair. But Gary Gerstle’s new book is about the rise and fall of the neoliberal order. And it is the contemporary collapse of neoliberalism – the general loss of faith in the free market among conservatives and liberals alike – that, according to Gerstle, defines our current political malaise.
This, of course, explains the success of Donald Trump, who is anything but a faithful follower of the economic theories of Friedrich Hayek, or Ronald Reagan’s distaste for big government. And that makes sense to iconoclastic conservative thinkers like Silicon Valley billionaire and chess master Peter Thiel who, his biographer Max Chafkin explained on Want tois an ideologue of monopoly rather than free market capitalism.
So what exactly comes after neoliberalism? Where to find the opening moves in Edmund Fawcett’s great chess game between left and right?
The game has already started in the old Mitteleuropa, with Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party. Over the past few months, we have made several Want to programs on the Orban phenomenon: on “ornationalism”, for example, and on his crusade against the LGBTQ community. And, of course, his name is always prominent – along with Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Duterte and Bolsonaro – in this band of political thugs seeking to smash democracy. So Moises Naim, the author of the excellent news revenge of powerrecently argued on Want tothat Orban is first among equals in this hall of shame of neo-authoritarian bad boys.
But I think categorizing Viktor Orban with Putin and Xi is a mistake. The Hungarian elections last weekend, in which Orban and Fidesz absolutely crushed a united opposition movement, were relatively free and fair. Not completely, of course. Especially since Fidesz now monopolizes the Hungarian media. But even that is not strictly illegal. And there remains a partially free Hungarian press and a relatively open expression in the country, especially compared to Russia, China or Turkey. Indeed, judging by the ubiquity of Orban’s posters on seemingly every wall in Budapest, he clearly took the election very seriously. After a few days in town, even I started to think of him familiarly.
“Conservatives, who started out as anti-modern, managed to master modernity, because the right was – tellingly – the strongest competitor.”
No, turning Orban into Putin or Xi or some sort of Orwellian Big Brother is too convenient and reassuring. It’s like calling him a fascist or a Nazi. But the truth is more sinister than this cartoonish review. Orban is perfecting a quasi-legal Machiavellian model of political power accumulation. Just as Peter Thiel aspires to monopoly capitalism, Viktor Orban seeks to become a political monopolist. This does not necessarily make it authoritarian or even undemocratic. But its objective is the monopoly of what Marxists called “the state apparatus”. He wants to turn the Hungarian bureaucracy into a center of political and economic profit for his clients and supporters. It is Leninism without Bolshevism. Or Trumpism without Trump.
This was underscored to me by the conversations I had with a number of Orban critics in Budapest this week. Renata Uitz and Laszlo Bruszt are co-directors of the Institute of Democracy at Central European University, whose headquarters remain on the Pest side of the Danube. Bruszt and Uitz, who also recently made a Want to show with me that Ukraine is an illiberal war, are fundamentally hostile to Viktor Orban. But they are also impressed by his political skills. Uitz described Orban to me as “smart and ruthless” – especially in contrast to the opposition in last weekend’s election which she said was “incompetent” and “invisible”. On EU relations, on energy policy, on Ukraine and Russia, and on his demonizing cultural politics, Uitz told me, Orban knows his Hungarian audience intimately and knows exactly how far he can and cannot can’t go.
Laszlo Bruszt, who personally knew Viktor Orban in the late 80s and 90s, also describes him as a Machiavellian “monster”. Orban learned his anti-constitutionalism from the Communists, Bruszt explains. Unlike the Communists, however, Orban gives people everything they want – from subsidized chicken legs to the distribution of cheap gas and electricity. It is as if he were a successful reincarnation of Janos Kadar, the father of “goulash communism”.
So back to Edmund Fawcett’s great ongoing chess game between left and right. In our post-neoliberal world, the Orban model of gaining political monopoly by taking control of the state has impressed “conservatives” like Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson. Peter Thiel even moved into a $13 million mansion in Washington DC to presumably fund this new Leninist Republican Party cadre.
“Conservatives, who started out as anti-moderns, managed to master modernity, because the right was – tellingly – the strongest competitor”, you will recall from the writing of Edmund Fawcett. The chilling message from Budapest is that mastering modernity might actually mean getting rid of it. Or at least undermine many liberal achievements of modernity, especially state autonomy, in the exclusionary parlance of ethno-nationalism.
But there is another chilling message from Hungary. In the history of neoliberalism, remember, it was the conservatives who took the first steps in the game of chess. They played in white. First Reagan and Thatcher, then their imitators Clinton and Blair. What if the Orban model is successfully pursued by Republicans in the United States or by Marine Le Pen in France? Could this be a strategy that the “liberals” will be tempted to imitate? Could Orban’s cult of political power fill the ideological void of our post-neoliberal world?